Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby alleges conference media rights partner ESPN conspired to damage the league by luring Texas and Oklahoma to the SEC as detailed in a cease and desist letter sent to the network on Wednesday. Bowlsby also tells CBS Sports that ESPN has actively engaged the American Athletic Conference (AAC) to pursue "3-5" Big 12 members join the league, suggesting it would be rewarded with "future television proceeds".
The letter alleges ESPN "has taken certain actions that are intended to not only harm the Big 12 Conference but to result in financial benefits for ESPN." The network currently shares Big 12 rights with Fox.
Bowlsby told CBS Sports that ESPN's actions are equal to "tortious interference".
"[There are] two documents that govern our members," Bowlsby told CBS Sports. "One is the bylaws, and the other is the grant of rights. The bylaws go for 99 years; the grant of rights go until 2024-25. ESPN has been behind these moves every step of the way."
He added: "I have every expectation that Oklahoma and Texas will do whatever they can to not meet their [contractual] obligations. That's what they've done so far. ... One of the ways the two schools and ESPN will seek to absolve themselves of the obligation is to destabilize the league and cause an implosion of the other eight members.
"I am absolutely certain ESPN employees have discussed and provided incentives for at least one conference to raid 3-5 members from the Big 12. In doing so, they are prepared to reward them with future television proceeds. If the conference goes away as an entity, Oklahoma and Texas could be relieved from their exit obligations. Those obligations at this time would include the payment of $70M to $80M -- two years full revenue -- per school and leaving their media rights with the Big 12.
"We're just not going to sit still and let somebody who is supposed to be our partner collaborate and disrupt our business. I know with certainty they are doing it relative to one conference. I suspect they have done the same thing in moving Texas and Oklahoma to the SEC."
With its flagship brands in Texas and Oklahoma departing the conference, the Big 12 is at a crossroads. The letter to ESPN is just the first sign that the conference is gearing up for a legal fight.
"The Big 12 Conference demands that ESPN immediately cease and desist all actions that may harm the conference and its members and that it not communicate with the Big 12 Conference's existing members or any NCAA conference regarding the Big 12 conference's members, possible conference realignment or potential financial incentive or outcomes related to possible conference realignment," the letter reads.
ESPN publicly responded: "The claims in the letter have no merit."
Both OU and Texas have indicated, though legally required, that they are willing to wait until their grant of rights with the Big 12 expires in 2025 to avoid paying hefty exit fees. However, the schools noted in a joint statement Monday that both "will continue to monitor the rapidly evolving collegiate athletics landscape as they consider how best to position their athletics programs for the future."